Thursday, September 15, 2016

The thing about chickens...

Before we moved to Belize, I had a bunch of friends who were nuts about their chickens.  I didn't quite get it; I had horses (and still do), and I couldn't quite understand the big deal about noisy messy birds when you could have big beautiful horses.

In Belize, we quickly discovered that the only way to get good eggs is to know the chickens laying them.  The eggs you buy in the stores are crap; they're so mishandled, old, or from unhappy chickens, the yolks break as soon as you crack them, and they are sometimes spoiled when you buy them.  You quickly learn to always crack your eggs in a cup before using them.  For people who like easy over eggs in the morning, this just doesn't do.

We found a friend down the road who sold eggs.  Her chickens were well loved, well fed, free range and happy.  The eggs were great.  But, the chickens got old, and she no longer sold eggs.  So, we decided that in the interests of self-sufficiency we would get chickens.

The first batch were the red laying hens.  We have an open coop where we can keep them at night, and they free range during the day.  We bought them as little chicks, and they were laying within about four months.  The eggs were perfect.  However, one of the first things we learned about chickens is that disaster is always imminent, and there are lots of ways to kill a chicken...foxes, hawks, boas, possums, dogs (even ours!), and horses (also ours!).  The lesson was to not get to attached to chickens, which is fairly easy to do since they all the red hens look and act the same.

This lesson made us brave, and we decided to start getting broilers.  We also bought these as little chicks, and within six or eight weeks they are five to seven pounds and ready to be butchered.  I learned to butcher them, and found that I didn't have a problem doing it.  The broilers are pretty dull, tend not to wander around even when you leave the coop open, and the transition from live chicken to meat really isn't all that drastic.  Living off grid, we have a very small refrigerator and freezer, so keeping them alive and making the first step of a chicken dinner "butcher the chicken" works pretty well.

Just this spring, we got brave and decided to get local chickens.  The hens won't lay as many eggs as the red hens, and the eggs will probably be smaller, but they lay for a longer time.  The roosters won't grow as fast as the broilers, but local chicken meat is very tasty, moreso than the broiler meat, because the roosters will free range.  We thought since we'd done the starter chicken thing with the red hens and the broilers that we were ready for "real" chickens.

We were wrong.  In the middle of May, we bought 25 3-week old local chicks.  I think we now have 25 pet chickens, and I now understand how all my NY chicken friends got so attached to their chickens.  The local chickens are individuals, which I think is what makes them so engaging.  They are all different colors, all different sizes, all different shapes, and they all have different personalities.  Watching them grow over the past few months has been fascinating and Tom and I even found ourselves taking our evening beers to the chicken coop just to watch them.  

Getting attached isn't a problem for the hens, who should be laying eggs for us for the next five years or so.  The roosters, however, are another story.  They're not really good for much besides doing their part to create the next generation of chickens, entertainment, and...meat.  And I don't want to butcher any of them because they are pretty and entertaining and funny.  I'm using the excuse that I want to see what the next generation looks like before we start eating potentially good fathers, but really, I just like them.  

The problem is that they crow.  I find this fascinating, because they each have a different voice and different crowing postures and different attitudes.  But they start at around 4am.  They spend the night in their coop, which is far enough from the house that they don't wake me up, but if I am awake for some reason, it's loud enough to keep me awake.  And Tom says they do wake him up, so we are worried that they will eventually bother some of our guests, although so far nobody has complained.  I figure there are enough loud noises in the jungle at night, like the howler monkeys and disturbed chachalacas, that we should be able to ignore it, but I suspect I am just rationalizing my lack of desire to butcher them.

So what's the conclusion?  I don't know.  For now, the roosters are getting a pass.  However, it's possible that we will eventually get hungry enough or annoyed enough or just overwhelmed with roosters enough that we will start eating them.  I'm sure they will be delicious.

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